By Macaela MacKenzie
Joan MacDonald, the 74-year-old behind Train With Joan, is always up for trying new things—“whether it’s good for me or not,” she says with a conspiratorial wink over Zoom. Still, documenting her fitness journey on Instagram was decidedly out of her comfort zone: MacDonald was in her 70s, had no idea how to use social media, and had barely set foot in a gym. “[When I was younger] married women didn’t belong to gyms, they just didn’t, until later on,” she says. Today, Macdonald has enviable biceps and nearly a million followers.
MacDonald’s feed is filled with the stuff that makes Instagram so irresistible and sometimes gets the platform criticized as surface-level eye candy—coordinating athleisure sets, white sand beaches, glamorous bikini shots in portrait mode. But coming from a septuagenarian who is clearly living her best life, MacDonald’s platform is so much deeper than that: It’s a challenge to our ideas of who older women are allowed to be. “Older women have a lot to offer,” she says. “There are a lot of older women out here older than I am that are really strong, amazing people. Older women have a voice and we need to be listened to. People think, Oh Grandma, what does she know? But you’d be amazed at what Grandma can do.”
McDonald’s fitness journey began like many people’s: with a visit to the doctor. “They said they were going to increase my medications because my blood pressure was not being controlled properly, but I didn’t like to be on medication,” she says. Her daughter Michelle, a health coach, issued her a challenge: follow along on her upcoming fitness retreat, and she’d help MacDonald get her health in check. With her doctor’s blessing, she started to learn the basics, reading up on nutrition and fitness. “I had to learn how to use apps,” she says. “I had to learn how to use a computer properly and and iPad and the iPhone,” and eventually Instagram, which Michelle thought would be a great way for her mom to stay connected to a healthy community.
Those early workouts had gotten MacDonald’s blood pressure in check, and her doctor was reducing her meds—maybe she could even use Instagram to help other women get healthy, her daughter suggested. “I thought that was a bit far-fetched at the time,” MacDonald says. A workout plan was one thing, but social media was entirely new territory for a woman in her 70s. “No one likes to be doing something that you’ve never done before and have it be made public. That was really hard. It still is in a way—but I started getting people communicating with me, so I would chat back [with my story],” she says. “They said I was ‘influencing’ them and I’m going, Really? When I got to a thousand followers, I thought that was really fabulous.”
Three years later, Train With Joan has become a community fueled by the idea that when women take time for themselves, a radical shift happens. “As a woman, you’re always giving of yourself for your family,” MacDonald says. “My kids were always more important than what I wanted to do. But just because you’ve raised a family doesn’t mean you have nothing else to offer.”
We asked MacDonald about the power of taking time for herself, her relentless brand of positivity, and her advice to her younger self.
Appreciate your body.
I used to think, Oh, these women, they’re so beautiful because they’re so thin, and all the rest of it. But each of us has a different body shape, and I think as long as you’re really happy with the way you are, then you don’t have to worry about anybody else. I’ll never be skinny; I’ve got too much meat on my bones. Who cares?
I wasn’t ever considered pretty and I hear that all the time now. But I feel good about myself now. I feel more confident about how I dress and how I act—that’s why I look better.
Don’t waste time on trolls.
If anyone is negative to me, they’re out of my life. It’s not often I get negative comments, but it always impacts me. It’s so easy to fall down the rabbit hole of negativity. You need people being encouraging to you and to let all the negativity go. When you feel loved, I think you can give it back and it just magnifies. I don’t want to be the one that says, “Oh, I can’t do that.” So I surround myself with encouraging people because I want to try.
Prioritize “me time.”
If at all possible, save some time for yourself. Even if it’s just a half an hour or an hour a day. Do it because you’re going to need it in the future. If you make this a habit, you’ll be a better person for it. Me, I love going to the gym—it gets me energized. Honestly, I can’t believe I’m 74.